Losing Patuá.

Matthew Keegan writes for the Guardian about a language used in Macau, and its dwindling number of speakers:

‘Nowadays, nobody speaks much Patuá. Only the old people speak Patuá,” declares 102-year-old Aida de Jesus as she sits across the table from her daughter inside Riquexo, the small Macanese restaurant that remarkably, despite her grand age, she runs to this day.

Patuá is the name of De Jesus’ mother tongue, and she is one of its last surviving custodians. Known to those who speak it as “Maquista”, Patuá is a creole language that developed in Malacca, Portugal’s main base in south-east Asia, during the first half of the 16th century, and made its way to Macau when the Portuguese settled there. It blends Portuguese with Cantonese and Malay, plus traces of other languages from stop-offs on the Portuguese trading route.

Patuá developed to eventually become the language of Macau’s indigenous Eurasian community: the Macanese. They first arose from intermarriages between Portuguese colonisers and the Chinese – mostly Portuguese men marrying and starting families with Chinese women.

However, as of the second quarter of the 19th century, the strengthening of public education in Portuguese and the socioeconomic advantages associated with the language led to the stigmatisation of Patuá. It was shunned as “broken Portuguese” and became a language confined mostly to the home.

In 2009, Unesco classified Patuá as a “critically endangered” language. As of the year 2000, there were estimated to be just 50 Patuá speakers worldwide. […]

Elisabela Larrea, a part-time PhD student and author of a blog that introduces Patuá dialect flashcards to English and Chinese readers, learned of the challenges her ancestors faced speaking the language. She is now part of a small community in Macau that wants to help preserve it as a medium of Macanese culture.

Its a sadly common story, of course, but every such situation is unique, and this article comes with gorgeous photos as well as a video clip in which Ms. Larrea shares some phrases in the language. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. A sadly common story it is, indeed, but even more sadly common (to my mind) is the unwritten journalistic rule whereby a creole language must be described as a “blended” or “mixed” language. To repeat something I once wrote here at Casa Hat, I suspect that this unwritten rule is due to a naive equation of race and language: since creole languages are all too often spoken by groups who are racially mixed it is therefore assumed that the creole languages spoken by these groups must likewise be mixed in origin.

  2. Etienne: with respect, I don’t believe that explanation. Haitians don’t look particularly mixed-race at all, with a few exceptions. Rather it is that the journalists have vaguely heard that Haitian Creole is a combination of French and “African language(s)”, and so characterize it as mixed.

  3. Well the same word “Creole” is used as a racial slur in a number of languages, including Portuguese, for black or so-called “mixed” people. I know words change in implication but this is one term I wish linguists would change.

    I did a little bit of work on Patuá Maquista once. The idea of a Portuguese/Chinese creole intrigued me, but turns out it has almost no Chinese in it (one exception: chau chau “stir-fried food; mess; disorder” < 炒 chǎo—notice reduplication is a feature of Maquista as well as Chinese), but rather a lot of Malay (godão “warehose” < gudang)—and quite a bit of English at that; I was charmed by words like dangeroso (dangerous/perigoso), adape “hard up” (estou adape “I’m broke”), afordar “to afford”, cacai “cross-eyed” < cockeyed, entiçar, fluquice < "fluke", parcar < "park" and so on. This is attributed to the proximity of the Portuguese's Malay colony, the British Chinese one, and to Macau settlers being forbidden from close contact with mainland Chinese beyond the gate (they could bring wives from Malaca but not marry Chinese).

  4. Interesting, thanks!

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    To boiko’s point there’s obviously a difficult-to-resolve problem if linguists working in various languages use a technical term which has different semantic implications in those different languages, but I would say that in AmEng “creole” has these days pretty minimal racial baggage and indeed there’s a history of it being used in the context of black Louisiana culture that’s positive to the point of euphemism, i.e. it focuses on the Frenchness of it (meaning exoticism but in a good and sophisticated way) in a way that changes the subject away from the blackness of it. So for example it was better marketing for Duke Ellington to call a tune “Creole Love Call” than it would have been to call the same tune “Negro Love Call” or “Colored Love Call” or even “Love Call of Color.” To some extent that’s probably rooted in a problematic backstory where the gens de couleur libres in Francophone Louisiana were trying to emphasize the white part of their ancestry/culture in order to signal to the unmixed white folks “hey, don’t be prejudiced at us; be prejudiced at those even-darker-skinned folks over there” but I’m talking about how the term was subsequently received in the US more broadly by those white speakers disinclined to draw such fine distinctions.

  6. J.W.: That may be true for Am-Eng (or English in general), but this kind of technical term tends to transcend linguistic barriers (at least European linguistic barriers). A peek at the wpedia sidebar shows that “creole” or a cognate is used as a technical term in almost all languages (notable exception: Irish fásteanga – “grown-tongue”? if so, I applaud this term; what’s remarkable about creoles isn’t that they’re mixed, which is the normal state of languages, but that they’re newly mixed; if I was the language czar I’d probably call them “fresh tongues” or something like that), even in those languages (like mine) where it’s still a living slur (we have to start creolistics courses with a lame “sorry for the word, historical reasons blah blah, linguists don’t mean it that way”).

  7. I’ve heard people object to “native speaker” with “It’s not nice to call people natives.” But what can you do? “L1 speaker” is okay in writing, but very unnatural in speech.

    I don’t think “mixed” is the right metaphor at all anyway. Almost all of Haitian Creole’s vocabulary is of French origin, for example. I like John McWhorter’s metaphor: “some languages are crushed to powder but rise again as new ones”. That is why Jamaican Creole is a creole and English isn’t: there is a defining event in Jamaican Creole’s past that has no counterpart in the history of English.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps just a sign that the discipline is dominated by Anglophone imperialists, with the rest of the world unable to resist English-origin technical jargon? Not like the good old days of the 19th c. when any Anglophone wanting to become a credible scholar in the field had to have gotten a doctorate at a university where the language of instruction was German …

  9. Lars (not the regular) says

    J.W. Brewer: Morphology is definitely a factor. In linguistics we have Turkish vs. Turkic (etc.), the chemists have their -oic acids and so on. Replicating that in another language requires either ingenuity or some degree of adherence to the source language. In my corner of the world (computer science, Denmark), ingenuity is frowned upon. Use of English terms results.

  10. marie-lucie says


    This word looks and sounds suspiciously like French patois [patwâ], used in France for local dialects but also in the Caribbean for creoles, even non-French ones.

  11. There is a statue of the patuá poet José dos Santos Ferreira (Adé) in Macau.

    Indeed, I was the one who started the article on José dos Santos Ferreira in 2005, based on the inscription on the base of the statue. In 2009 a user called Oo7565 proposed deleting it. I defended the article against deletion as follows:

    José dos Santos Ferreira may not be well known in the halls of Hollywood or other bastions of Western entertainment or culture. To say that he is “non-notable”, however, is quite clearly a misapprehension. The man has a statue erected to him in a public place in the Macau SAR. It is difficult to see that there is a prima facie case for deletion of a biography when the person in question is notable enough to have a statue erected in a public place. Ade may have been writing in a language that is not very well known and is probably dying, in a territory that does not make a very big splash in the Western world. He is, however, an important symbol of a cultural tradition in Macau, and for those who care about Macau’s culture and history, his memory is worth keeping alive.

  12. @marie-lucie: Indeed, patuá maquista is simply “Macauan patois”.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Thank you boiko! Is patuá commonly used in Portuguese then? in other places?

  14. Marie-Lucie: the language which is known to linguists as Jamaican creole is called “patois” by its speakers, and indeed I once had a Haitian student who was quite confused by this state of affairs, and who had assumed that, because the language spoken by Haitians is called a creole and that spoken by Jamaicans a patois, the two languages must be wholly dissimilar in structure and/or origin.

    John Cowan: okay, my original comment should have been more nuanced. How about this (I’m echoing something a creole scholar once pointed out): Because creoles are languages whose lexicon typically derives from a single European language (Portuguese, in this case), despite their speakers typically being wholly or partly non-European genetically, and which as a rule are incomprehensible to speakers (native or not) of the European language in question, it is all too easy among non-linguists to assume that what makes creoles separate languages is a non-European component to everything about a creole other than its vocabulary. Hence the claim that creoles are mixed languages. Better?

  15. marie-lucie says

    Etienne: the language which is known to linguists as Jamaican creole is called “patois” by its speakers

    I had a vague recollection of having read this, but I wasn’t sure which “creole(s)” it was referring to.

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